- A Hundred Years of Fake News
It is not uncommon these days to hear someone ask, in anguished punctuation to a news story, and as if the question may never be answered: "What is going onnn?" While pundits have explained the outcome of the 2016 election in various ways, the two most prominent explanations, each carrying different implications for strategic responses, have to do with a basic question of whether the election represented the genuine will of a significant portion of the electorate or whether an insidious propaganda effort by a foreign power can explain why the president of the United States is now the man Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor described as a "racist, sexist megalomaniac."1 Four new books about the history of American politics and media offer insights relevant to both sides of this argument. Ranging chronologically from the early twentieth century's Committee on Public Information to 1960s and 1970s conspiracytheory fueled mobilizations against the civil rights movement and women's liberation, to websites and message boards dedicated to discussing and preparing for an imminent apocalypse, this collection of books provides a historical perspective on what many of us are experiencing as an unprecedented attack [End Page 301] on reality itself. Lucidly written, informative, and often entertaining, they each map a constellation of ideas across the writing and actions of relatively small groups of activists and opinion makers to make larger claims about American political culture.
In Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion, Jonathan Auerbach analyzes writings of early twentieth-century Progressive US political leaders and public intellectuals about the nature of publicity and persuasion in democratic government. Edward Miller's Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy describes the dialectical relationship between moderate conservatives and ultra-right conspiracy theorists in the Dallas Republican Party in the years leading up to the Kennedy assassination. Also set partly in Texas, Marjorie Spruill's Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics describes a year of dramatic conflict between second-wave feminist activists and their opponents, placing a cadre of ultraconservative women ideologues at the heart of the story of the birth of the New Right. Departing from party politicking to explore a virtual community on the left, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson's Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture guides us through the media landscape of the present day, with a detailed analysis of the Left's version of doomsday preppers, "peakists" who prepare individually to survive the anticipated fall of modern civilization. In a variety of ways, all four works come back to the question, once again relevant to our own time, that the inability to know exactly what is going on? has presented a perpetual sense of crisis for democracy.
Auerbach opens with Walter Lippmann, famous for his concern about the threat of commercially circulated news to the practice of democracy. In his extended reading of Lippmann's work in the fourth chapter, Auerbach notes that this early critic of mass media was not simply an elitest but deeply concerned about the difficulty of getting accurate information in a mass society. Lippmann wrote, for instance in the Phantom Public, a comment foreshadowing today's common news-reader complaint: "I cannot find time to do what is expected of me in the theory of democracy; that is, to know...